Friday, March 20, 2009

A "Michael Jordan" Lives in Sandy

He's the undisputed world champion. Hands down.

He's held that position for 20 years.

In Europe people line up for his autograph. A woman from Siberia drove 18 hours just to meet him.

They just made a movie about the guy.

But chances are, you've never heard of him.

Because he doesn't play baseball or basketball.

John Brzenk is an arm wrestler. (And a Fresh Look on Life.)

In 1985 Brzenk entered a Las Vegas tournament held in conjunction with the filming of Sylvester Stallone's "Over the Top." The biggest thing that's ever hit the arm wrestling world.

In the movie, Stallone's character enters a competition and wins an eighteen wheeler. Brzenk was the real-life winner. He took first place and the truck.

And arm wrestlers around the world all agree he's been the champion, the "Michael Jordan" of the sport, ever since.

Brzenk has beaten just about everyone there is to beat.

A few years ago, filmmaker Sevan Matossian started to make a documentary about arm wrestling. It turned into a movie about John.

At the beginning of the promotional video for "Pulling John,"
the soundtrack, a stirring chorus of choir and strings and percussion, swells.


Bum bum bum.


Bum bum bum.


I thought when I asked how much of his success is strength and how much is technique, I'd hear about the technique.

No, he said, in the end it comes down to brute strength.

Friend and arm wrestler Bob Brown says, "He is just a freak."

And he means that in a good way.

Brzenk is just that strong.

He doesn't lift weights. He just, as arm wrestlers say, pulls. It's about focus and genetics.

I heard a story about Brzenk, lost in the wilderness and in need of firewood, ripping trees out of the ground.

And started thinking about Paul Bunyon.

To be sure, Brzenk is very smart and very competitive.

Friend and arm wrestler Kevin Bongard says he and Brzenk, at their regular wrestling practice sessions, used to box.

One time they were relaxing after an especially long wrestling session.

"Hey, maybe we ought to get the gloves," Brzenk suggested.

"No, we've been wrestling," Bongard said.

"Hey, ya sissy."

"OK," Bongard said, "get the gloves."

"And we went at it and we went at it," Bongard recounted. "We wouldn't quit. His wife was yelling at us. And the back of his leg was all cut up from the rosebushes. I had a fat lip. He had a black eye. It got crazy."

The thing is, in person, at his suburban Utah home, Brzenk doesn't come across as a superman or a Paul Bunyon.

He's a humble, soft-spoken airline mechanic and family man, who isn't prone to self-promotion. Not at all.

Asked about being the best he said, "People have told me that. There are guys out there that are as good as me. It's just they're far away and there's so little money in the sport."

I called Brzenk to tell him the air date for the KUTV story, but couldn't reach him. Brown said his friend was in Denver. A couple minutes later I walked by a TV tuned to ESPN and there was John Brzenk in a wrestling tournament. And commentators were using that word "legendary."

When you're that good at what you do, you don't necessarily need to promote yourself. Word gets around.

Even to Siberia.

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